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Missing Mercury: An Intrigue

There are some really creepy bits in today's Washington Post story, EPA Issues New Rule for Mercury. Apparently, the chlorine industry has some difficuly accounting for its mercury:

"The fate of the mercury consumed" by chlorine manufacturing plants across the country "remains somewhat of an enigma," the agency said in the final rule published in the Federal Register. The new rule provides work practice guidelines aimed at preventing spills, leaks and emissions of mercury, but the EPA said it is "not feasible" to take more aggressive steps to pinpoint the "fugitive" mercury or enforce a tougher emissions standard.

Environmentalists say that chemical companies such as Occidental Chemical Corp. and Olin Corp. use 100 tons of mercury annually to replenish the amount lost in the manufacturing process, but they cannot explain what happens to the mercury being replaced. If that mercury is escaping in the form of vapor, it would dwarf the estimated 48 tons of currently unregulated airborne mercury from the nation's coal-fired power plants.

The EPA earlier this week proposed two rules for reducing mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants. Mercury that enters the food chain can cause severe neurological and developmental damage, especially to the fetuses of pregnant women who eat mercury-tainted fish and shellfish.

Nine chemical plants in Alabama, Delaware, Georgia, Louisiana, Ohio, Tennessee, West Virginia and Wisconsin still use the practice, which has gradually been phased out in other places, of producing chlorine by subjecting large cells filled with thousands of pounds of mercury to an electrical charge.

The Natural Resources Defense Council and Earthjustice said the regulation issued yesterday does not address most mercury emissions. They have called on the EPA to require chlorine manufacturers to stop using the mercury cell process. According to the most recent data in the government's 2000 Toxics Release Inventory, 65 tons of mercury consumed by industry that year could not be accounted for.

"There's nothing in this rule that tells us we won't have hundreds of tons of mercury a year from these plants for the foreseeable future," said Jim Pew, a lawyer with Earthjustice. "The EPA says we don't have any data on these fugitive emissions and, therefore, they can't set standards."

Perhaps the missing mercury is turning into gold? Or maybe it's just vanishing into thin air.

Why do these companies think they can get away with dumping an extra 65 tons of mercury into the air? Why are we expected not to notice?

Perhaps this is why:

The Dallas-based Occidental Chemical Corp, a $20,000-plus Bush contributor, also has lobbied Texas officials on laws regarding pollution. The company loaned its jet to Bush five times and was reimbursed $7,708. Other companies that have interests before Texas state government: Texas Utilities, which was paid $3,437 for use of its jet; Union Pacific ($6,808); and PilgrimÅfs Pride ($5,085).

And the Olin family, through its corporation and through its foundation, have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to conservative causes:

The Heritage Foundation, widely recognized as the architect of ReaganÅfs conservative agenda, was founded by Joseph Coors and John Mellon Scaife in 1973. It received $537,000 from Olin in 1994, and $2.7 million from Joyce and the Bradley Foundation between 1990-1992. Another leading conservative think tank, The American Enterprise Institute (AEI), received $653,000 from Olin in 1994, and $2.38 million from Bradley between 1990-1992 (Buying a Movement, 1996). AEI is now home to The Bell Curve author and Bradley Fellow Charles Murray, who received $100,000 in annual funding from Bradley for his controversial book (Buying a Movement, 1996).

Olin Corp. has a page on its site on the environment entitled "The Goal is Zero." The word mercury does not appear anywhere on the page, not anywhere else on its pages on the environment.

These are the companies that brought us Love Canal. Check out this 1999 press release from the Department of Justice, headlined:

Case Represents Last of Four Cases in Love Canal Area

No wonder Occidental was giving Bush such plush treatment.

Hey, Eric Pianin, how come you didn't mention any of this background -- which I found in about 5 miniutes on the Internet -- in your Washington Post story?